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Rachel Lackey fell in love with printmaking in college at the University of Alabama at Huntsville in 2004. She loved to experiment with texture, making unique pieces out of accidental ink transfers. She loved the challenge. But after she graduated, she didn’t have access to printing presses anymore.

“I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself whether it’’s academically or artistic — everything I do — if I’m supposed to go one mile I’m gonna try to do three miles backwards,” Lackey said.

Lackey found an artist community at Lowe Mill in Huntsville, an arts facility that hosts more than 200 artist studios inside a 120-year-old former textile mill. She found that like her, many of the artists had printmaking backgrounds, but stopped due to a lack of equipment. So in 2011 she founded Green Pea Press, a studio for herself that’s open to other artists, complete with a printing press.

“I love drawing and I love watercolor painting, it’s really direct. But with printmaking there’s so many different steps. And I think what I love about it is that you don’t have complete control. At each step something can change a little bit. By the time you get to the finished project you can be surprised a little bit,” Lackey said.

Lackey’s press drew other artists from around north Alabama. The collective designs their own pieces, prints them in the studio and is able to sell them both in Lowe Mill and at Green Pea Press’s website.

“My favorite thing about what I do is being able to offer opportunities to others that weren’t available to me 10 years ago,” Lackey said. “All of our employees are talented artists in their own right, some with degrees in printmaking as well, and receive membership in the artist collective as a perk of employment.” 

Now Lackey’s collective takes up a 4,200-sq. ft.  studio inside Lowe Mill, which they moved into at the beginning of this year, and a 1,500-sq. ft. screen printing shop down the street. In addition to individual printmaking studios, the large space hosts workshops and community activities.

“Moving into the larger studio, while nerve-wracking during the shutdown, also turned out to be our saving grace this year,” Lackey said. “We would not have been able to reopen and begin offering classes and studio time again if we were still in our smaller studio space.

Lackey learned the value of Huntsville’s rich support for the arts during the pandemic. She was able to secure a PPP loan to continue paying her all-women staff. And the community she cultivated by giving back to the north Alabama art world returned the favor by fervently purchasing work from Green Pea Press and supporting artist fundraisers.

Many of the artists in the collective turned to protest art as Huntsville made national news for using tear gas on peaceful protestors highlighting police violence against people of color.

“Printmaking has always been really important in political movements or social justice movements throughout time,” Lackey said. “I think it really lends itself to that, especially typography or strong imagery and just being able to make reproductions of work.”

Artists created posters that benefited the Huntsville Bail Fund and shirts decrying police brutality to support the NAACP.

Though the pandemic has brought success in printing protest art, Green Pea Press has not been able to host the same array of workshops previously offered. Lackey says she misses the community of makers that usually fills up the large studio space. She misses the community that allowed her to create a sustainable printmaking model.

“We’ve been really fortunate to be able to keep going, but what I really look forward to is doing a lot more of community interaction,” Lackey said. “And being able to have our members working together again closely. The community aspect is really what’s the most valuable to me.”